Sunday, January 26

Lost in Boelter: Finding a purpose

Long lines at a computer science job fair at UCLA. (Keshav Tadimeti/Daily Bruin)

“What career do you want to pursue?”

I’ve had my fair share of being on the receiving end of that question. But of all my countless encounters with it, one incident in particular stands out in mind.

Two years back, I was speaking to my friend’s dad when he asked me about my career plans. I gave him my usual response that I wanted to pursue a career in computer science and that I was interested in computer security, to which he responded, “That’s a good area. There’s a lot of demand for people in security and there are a lot of well-paying jobs.”

His statement was not unordinary, but it nonetheless struck me as odd: I want to pursue a career in computer security because I’m passionate about the field — so why was his first response to bring up the pay?

I later realized that his response was not so much indicative of his career preferences than of the computer science community as a whole and how it is enamored with the ideas of handsome pay and job stability. These are definitely important considerations for computer scientists seeking jobs, but what should be considered above all else is whether your role in the company is addressing problems in society. This idea, however, isn’t emphasized enough in the computer science community.

Big-name appeal

Computer science has the most potential out of any other field to change society rapidly. And that is by no means an overstatement.

Of all other fields of study, computer science has brought about the most profound changes in society in the shortest amount of time. The developments in computer science have shaped the trajectory of technological advancements, which continue to change our lives and the ways in which we interact with the world around us. Just take a look at mobile applications like Uber and Snapchat. In little over seven years since it was created, Uber has revolutionized the transportation industry; in only five years, Snapchat has redefined the bounds of personal expression.

Thus, computer scientists, situated at the forefront of technological advancement, are uniquely positioned to affect positive social change. Taking a glance at any successful social movement or grassroots effort will show you that technology is a cornerstone in successful campaigning and organization, and the fact that computer scientists develop and innovate these socially-empowering technologies adds credence to the idea that they can elicit notable social change.

But, despite this great potential to do social good, most computer scientists in search of jobs tend to place greater emphasis on the employer’s brand and the employee benefits provided rather than on whether the job is making a positive difference in society. In other words, everybody wants to work for Microsoft, even if the specific job that’s available appears to have no apparent social utility.

For example, a software engineering position at Accenture, a major consulting services company, may seem appealing, but if all you do is move internal legacy code to newer applications, it’s hard to see how what you are doing is helping anyone besides the company itself. Yet, the Accenture brand still entices people to take on those jobs.

We don’t need to venture too far to see this truth. Just look at the lines at the UCLA Engineering & Technical Fair. I can tell you right off the bat which companies will have at least 60 students waiting in line to speak to them: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and Facebook. On the other hand, the lines to speak with other companies’ representatives are much smaller.

Of course, it’s easy to discount this lopsided result as the byproduct of top companies being well-known, but the fact that students wait in line to speak to those companies even if their interests lie outside the jobs’ or internships’ scopes demonstrates that the brand-appeal plays an overbearing role in the career hunt — I can speak to this from my own experience.

Coding with a conscience

Instead of simply eagle-eying big-name companies, computer science students should have the presence of mind to understand the social impacts of the jobs they are pursuing. That isn’t to say that high-paying jobs at the most successful tech companies are bad, but what job-seeking students need to do, above all else, is to ask themselves whether they think the career will make a difference in society.

For example, someone coding in a cubicle for 15 hours a day — something quite common in the computer science industry — may conclude that he is in fact helping the broader society by working for his employer. But if that isn’t the case — and it would require a critical, introspective eye for the employee to come up with an honest answer — then he should pursue an avenue that does allow for him to solve a problem in society he feels strongly about.

That avenue can pursued in a multitude of ways, be that by founding a startup that makes it easier for activists to run online campaigns or teaching computer science at an inner-city school to children who may not have access to such a curriculum.

I’ll acknowledge that it may seem too demanding to ask people to be socially conscious when they are searching for jobs or trying to support their livelihood. Having interned at a company myself, I know how gratifying and enticing it is to be compensated well for your coding skills and not have to consider the societal impact of your work. However, having had to spend nearly 10 hours a day coding in a cubicle for that internship, I also know that unless I had found how my work was helping people, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did.

Ultimately, it is unbecoming of a computer science student to only be in it for the pay or job stability, considering the extensive training in a field that deals exclusively with solving problems. If you’re not applying your problem-solving skills some place where there is a worthwhile application, or you can’t see the social utility in the problem you are solving, then you are doing something fundamentally wrong. There’s no nicer way of putting it.

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Senior staff columnist

Tadimeti was the Daily Bruin's Opinion editor from 2017-2019 and an assistant Opinion editor in the 2016-2017 school year. He tends to write about issues pertaining to the higher education, state politics and the administration, and blogs occasionally about computer science. Tadimeti was also the executive producer of the "No Offense, But" and "In the Know" Daily Bruin Opinion podcasts.

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